- Life Style
The last few weeks have seen frenzied speculation about President Hosni Mubarak’s health, with journalists and commentators reading the tea leaves of his every trip or absence for a hint of his condition. And, with it, what might happen to Egypt once the man who has ruled it for nearly thirty years leaves the scene.
After what appears to have been a serious operation in March that left Mubarak out of public view for five weeks, it is only natural that there should be speculation about his health. The presidency’s claim that Mubarak is “keeping his aides out of breath” and the state press' front-page coverage of every event the president attends, no matter how unimportant, convince no one. Mubarak is 82, increasingly looks it, and the reports that he may have some form of terminal cancer--repeated to journalists by a wide range of American, European, Israeli, and Arab officials, diplomats and spies--could very well be true.
This does not mean, however, that one must start panicking every time Mubarak fails to attend an event. Even if he is sick, Mubarak has access to excellent medical care that can prolong his life if he suffers from a terminal disease. Illness does not necessarily mean the president is on his deathbed. In any case, information about Mubarak is so tightly controlled that should his health suddenly deteriorate we will probably not know about it anyway. US President Ronald Reagan was suspected of having shown early signs of Alzheimer’s late in his presidency, while France’s François Mitterrand’s prostate cancer, diagnosed at the beginning of his presidency, only became public knowledge a decade later. And these were men who presided over mature democracies.
A more curious phenomenon stemming from the recent rumors is the intense (but vague) speculation about the future of the country. There is, it seems, a collective failure of imagination about what Egypt after Mubarak might look like. Most, focusing on the mechanism of succession, find a future shrouded in dense fog--as Mubarak wants it--and shrug over the uncertainty of what is to come. Others predict inner-regime strife to secure control of the presidency, and not an insignificant number warn of impending chaos, either because of widening social chasms or a power vacuum at the top. The more outlandish predict an alliance of the Muslim Brothers and Mohamed ElBaradei bringing about a new Iran-like rogue state. Yet, chances are nothing so dramatic will happen.
The reason for this is that Egypt, just like the banks that were rescued by governments in the US and Europe, is too big to fail. Its systemic importance to the conduct of international relations in the Middle East is just too great to let it become a “rogue state” or spiral into chaos--even assuming that this badly run but closely controlled country is anywhere close to implosion. The Mubarak presidency, with its emphasis on stability above all else, has created a wide consensus among elites and beyond around a policy of cautious middle-of-the-roadism--so much so, in fact, that it frequently erred towards stagnation.
The regime's trump card when under pressure has been invoking its status as a turbulent region’s quiet spot, its center of inertia. Mubarak did so several times in the 1980s, receiving bailouts from allies when facing cash crunches. In 2004, even as a Bush administration driven by a vision of creative destruction irritated Mubarak with calls for democratization, Washington helped Egypt out of a five-year economic malaise with a discreet $750 million package made conditional on economic reforms. For strategic reasons, Egypt's influence has been bolstered by its allies even as its claim of Arab leadership steadily dwindled after Camp David--as is seen in Cairo’s current Western-backed monopoly on inter-Palestinian negotiations and, previously, its role in the Oslo process.
Markets local and global also believe that Egypt is too big too fail despite its uncertain future leadership. Over the past few years, billions of dollars in state bonds have been purchased on international markets, with apparent confidence that the government will honor its debt. Internationally-financed infrastructure projects are going ahead, and investments in oil and gas continue to pour in. This does not look like a country whose future the world is truly nervous about, because the world will simply not allow it to fall into chaos.
But being too big too fail can also be a curse. Egypt’s problem is not that it teeters on the brink of an abyss, as the alarmists would have it, but that it is too complacent, too certain of a rescue, too ready to choose the path of least resistance and just muddle along. Just as financial institutions assured of a bailout can eschew necessary reforms, so can political systems. Future leadership, hopefully, will be able to both steer a course away from regional extremes and to make a clean break with an unhappy status-quo.